So finally I got time to finish both the book and the review. Lot of things been going on the last few months. Travels ,holidays, and work. In any case, after reading A devil's chaplain by Dawkins , and also Daniel C. Dennet's Breaking the spell I decided that it was well time for me to work my way through Dawkins other books. I picked up the 30th Anniversary edition from Uppsala English bookshop as I was back in my old student town before Christmas, put my other reading projects to the side (well except for some fiction and work, but anyway) and got started.
Why The selfish gene and not, say, The god delusion (which might even be more famous today)? Well two reasons. Firstly, as many others, I decided to start from the beginning of Dawkin's publications. Published the same year that I was born, it is a shame that it has taken me so long time to get around to read it. Classic as it is. Secondly, while Richard Dawkins today is know for his vocal fight against charlatans and religions, that is in my mind just a consequence of his greater ideas. Religion is merely an example of a self a meme (at least that how is I see it now, but my learning of these concepts have merely begun), I wanted to read the original source. Or well, the popular scientific source of that idea. So, The selfish gene.
I like this book. And I especially like how Dawkins writes. I feel I could learn a lot about science writing just by reading him. The text is very clear, and easy to follow. There are not too many jumps or assumptions on what is needed to know. In my case, a basic nature scientific background was more than enough. Dawkins has ha lot of self esteem though, and there are occasional stabs at other writers. Nothing is cruel however; all is well argued.
The book itself starts by the introduction of replicators and what Dawkins (in this text) means when he refers to the gene. What follow is a pretty interesting tale on the basic principles of evolution. Step by step Dawkins argues for how the mechanics of replicators optimizes to propagate as efficiently as possible. On the level of the individual, family, and groups. One point Dawkins is trying to make is that there is no morally good or bad in this. The "selfish" part only applies as a way of describing the optimization (this is a word that the author does not use, but my own way of seeing things). The result is a very interesting explanation of how the world of living things (and well, replicating information) works; everything fits together in a very appealing way. Like only true explanations seem to do.
I read somewhere (was it in the preface, or on the web?) that some people had been left quite depressed, or at least disillusioned, after reading The selfish gene. From the fact that within this world view we are but vehicles for the genes. People who believe that the book robs the human of its spirit and free will. I think they miss the point. Yes, we are but biological vehicles, large lumps of collaborating matter. But that does not mean that we at the same time are anything but beings with our own minds and potential for creation. Everything is evolution. (Well, or the result of.)
What I mean is that we have our own will at another level of resolution than our genes drives our body. Today's human is as much a product of genetic material as of memes building up our conciousness. However, just as little can the genes decide what you will eat for breakfast tomorrow as the will of the 'I' affect the genetic encoding of information.
There are two different discussions going on here. I think that Dawkins make this relatively clear in the book. Actually, I do not know if he even found it necessary to point out in more detail while he was writing. In any case, I will not try to go into the discussion of will and existence. I can not describe my views on the subject clear enough yet, and I do not want it to sound mystical. There is nothing of the sort about it.
In any case, this is a classical book from a evolution and meme-theory perspective. It is really worth the time and energy to read it. When one come to chapter 11 and read about 'the new replicators', everything is set up to queue the meme, and the text is very enjoyable. In addition, to me at least, it showed a completely new view of biology, or rather zoology. As an almost mathematical science, which I assume it actually is. When I was in high school, and had to make my choices for university, biology was my least favourite natural science subject (which does not mean that I did not enjoy it). Mostly this was due to the fact that we did it very much by puting names to flora and fauna on pictures. Or at least that is what it felt like. I appreciate that this is something that is really good to know, but I think that if we would have been taught this very more scientific biology, I would have been hooked, and then learned all names and parts in the passing. In any case, that is something extra that this book gave me. A curious interest for zoology. Thanks Professor!